Decision on Alaska timber sale looms

December 12, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The new chief of the National Forest Service, facing his first major decision, is being pressed by conservationists to cancel a big timber sale in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

Jack Ward Thomas, who was appointed last month, must decide tomorrow whether he will review the planned logging of a vast section of the Tongass forest on Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska.

The sale of 267 million board feet of timber from 360,000 acres -- already approved by the regional office of the Forest Service -- is the largest disposal of public timber currently planned in the national forests. Conservationists oppose it because they say the Forest Service has not taken into account the effects of the sale on wildlife.

Aside from the sheer size of the transaction, Mr. Thomas' decision is being closely watched by conservationists because they have viewed his appointment as a signal that the agency is turning away from a long history of managing the forests mainly for the benefit of the timber industry.

Many old-line forest managers in the agency had opposed his appointment, saying it would politicize the forest service. Mr. Thomas, a scientist with the agency, was a political appointee not promoted from the senior ranks of managers.

In a letter sent Friday to Mr. Thomas, Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who is chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, urged him to review the Tongass sale. Mr. Miller's committee is investigating the service's compliance with the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990, which changed the way the forest is managed.

"I know that you share my concerns about abuses which have occurred in the management of our national forests," Mr. Miller wrote. "It would be most unfortunate if, at the very outset of your tenure as Chief, the Tongass sale would proceed without adequate review and policy direction reflecting the views of the Clinton administration."

Two weeks ago, the agency's Alaska regional forest manager turned down an appeal by conservationists seeking to halt the latest sale of Tongass timber to Ketchikan Pulp Co., one of two logging concerns that have 50-year contracts to cut in the forest.

The conservationists are now urging Mr. Thomas to take the matter up for review. Although a decision to review it would not necessarily mean he would ultimately reverse the regional forester, it would put him into direct conflict with the timber company, which under the contract is guaranteed a continuous supply of wood from the forest.

"In the course of the last four to five years, we have been short in excess of 100 million board feet," said Martin Pihl, general manager of the company. "The real situation is worse than that, ** because we have depleted inventories. Further delay will only aggravate the situation. It will cause down time and put people out of work."

Conservation groups contend that Ketchikan Pulp and the other company, Alaska Pulp Corp., are not living up to the intent of the contracts, which was to provide stable, year-round jobs at mills.

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